What does an environment watchdog need to deliver?

In this blog, Patrick Begg, our Outdoors and Natural Resources Director, considers what an environment watchdog needs to look like to satisfy the cynics and really deliver for our natural environment.

Upland heathland, Holnicote Estate, Somerset ©National Trust Images/John Miller

Politicians are prone to hyperbole. This is hardly a revelation and will capture exactly zero headlines.  Statements like ‘world leading’, ‘better than we’ve ever managed before’, ‘the envy of other countries’, are wearyingly commonplace and we rightly treat each one with a hearty dose of scepticism.  I suspect we have become particularly sensitive to promises and claims of such high ambitions for nature and the environment in a post-Brexit world.

There’s undoubtedly lots in the commendable 25 Year Plan for the Environment recently created by Michael Gove and backed by the Prime Minister which reflects high ambition.  So should we feel the same degree of cynicism about what will actually happen?

Perhaps there’s an acid test embodied by one very particular commitment, which stands out and which demands we watch very carefully what happens next.

As an indicator of intent being translated into effective action, the promise of a “world-leading… independent, statutory body” to safeguard our environment could be defining.  It may not conjure up the inspirational images of nature restoration associated with hundreds of thousands of new habitats being created, or the romance of lost species being reintroduced, but a new, powerful watchdog could be the deal breaker in whether ambitions are underpinned by appropriate and long term action. Future legislation and regulations to protect and enhance our environment will matter little if the government and public authorities cannot be held to account.

So what would ‘good’ look like for this watchdog, and what would signal success?

It’s vital that this new body is independent of government.  With careful design and an ambitious scope, that proper independence can be encouraged.  For example, setting it up to service all the nations of the UK would avoid any one political creed holding sway or exerting undue pressure.

To ensure follow through, we’d also expect it be accountable to our various parliaments and assemblies in equal measure. We’d want the body to respect absolutely the principles of devolution, but also to service the greater good of protecting as fully as possible our common environment.

The body also needs a clear and inspiring navigation aid which could and should be formed of a set of environmental principles, established under primary legislation.  It would then be absolutely clear what we, as a nation, stood for in terms of environmental standards.  We also need reassurance that bad things will be challenged and proper remedy sought.  So the watchdog needs muscle, and the powers and pathways which allow formal action to be taken whenever necessary.

If you’re like me, you’d also be reassured if it was set up to harness all the ears and eyes of the nation, and was open for all of us to raise concerns.  The freedom to identify problems and to expect someone to be listening and responding seems to me to be a mark of a society that values its citizens and their voice.  It’s also a signal that creating a healthy, nature-rich environment is very much a shared endeavour and responsibility.

Get all that right, then a claim of world class leadership in environmental protection starts to look much more persuasive.

For more of our views on the future of our natural environment and farming, take a look at some of our recent blogs, and our website.

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